Sunday, June 3, 2012

It's All About Me

My ex-wife had training in psychology and one of her favorite bedtime activities was propping herself up on a stack of pillows, a snack at the ready, and reading to me aloud from her beloved DSM IV, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.   "Listen to these symptoms, honey!  This is so totally you!"  Then she'd read me a description of some whacked-out obsessive syndrome involving cowboys, peanut butter, and raccoons, complete with its own insurance billing code.  Plenty of hilarious hijinks have ensued from this kind of rampant pathologising of quirky human behavior.  For example, whenever I used a public library computer to look up a book or DVD, I always made sure I wiped out my digital tracks. 

 "What if somebody is following us, doll?" I used to say to my wife.  "I just want to be sure.  It's not like I'm paranoid.  I just care about you and about us."

"Yes, dear.  After all, it's all about you."

"No, I'm really concerned about the invasion--"

"See?  Even your language reflects this massive paranoid narcissism.  Invasion?  Like aliens would care about you."  Then she'd laugh in this rather fakey sort of English hoity-toity mode. "Haw! Haaaw! Haaaaaaaw! You're really fucked up."

"Invasion of privacy, intrusion into the common man's psycho-castle.  And everyone's narcissistic.  Especially now with this mobile phone fad."

"Good one, you dumb-ass Luddite.  Oh, you're really giving Marshall McLuhan a run for his money."

And so on.  

Well, she was pretty bright and sassy and kept me on my tippy toes, but the wretched details of our marriage's degeneration will have to wait for another time.  For the record, it was mostly my selfish, borderline lock-down level solipsism that did us in.  I take full credit.  ME!!!

I've been thinking about this a lot lately because I've always had a tendency to regard the world as a big slide show or a long, snaking line of staged play lets-- strange and pretty tableaux-- all created for me.   The other day in breakfast line I got supremely annoyed that no one did anything weird or perverse.   All the men were sluggish and bovine, chewing away at rubbery fried eggs.  I fired psychic messages at their greasy heads--"Do something!  Get up and sing show tunes! Move it!" --to no avail.  A while back a giggler named Raul held up his fried egg by thumb and forefinger and said, "Hey, amigos!  You remember that Star Trek episode when there were those parasite things on that planet in the building and they looked like this and Spock got one attached to his spine?  Like this!"  He threw himself face down on the floor, yanked up his shirt and slapped the fried egg against his spine and performed a horizontal bop.  "Aaaah!  Help me, Jim!  Doctor!  Aaaaah!"

Why can't life be like that all the time?

In fact, the Mission is usually pretty generous with lunacy, and something about the stacked-up pressure at this stratum of society seems to generate its own newly-minted stereotypes and cartoony caricatures which pop right out of the ether at your face.  Raul above was The Giggling Mexican Star Trek Nerd, someone we all know intimately.   He had lots of earnest discussions with Fishboy/Fanboy/Funboy, a very affected and effeminate white specter who couldn't stop talking about Captain America:  He'd address anyone listening--gangsters, sex fiends--along these lines: "I think I speak for all of us when I say how deeply offended we were by the way Cap [Cap?  Did he say Cap?] got shorted in the Avengers. I mean first they change the uniform we all know and love, and why, gentlemen, tell me why, nobody understands the concept of a utility belt any more?"   One night in shower line Raul and Triple F got in an argument about the holo deck.   Triple F was of the opinion that you couldn't go the to bathroom while inside a simulation.  You'd have to hold it.  Raul disagreed.  "Naw, man. You could go, but all that shit and piss would just be hanging in the air and when you turned off the holo deck it would go, SPLOOOSH! on the floor."

All this with a complete and formidable lack of self-consciousness.  Other characters I'm sure you recognize from your life include Mr. Pink Veil Dancer,  Very Large Buck-Toothed Hick Man, and Silly Putty Covered Tall Guy With Scary Eyes.  Sure you do!

Well, I have admit this is a mite troubling, this raging delusional egotism I so decry in others. (Why beholdest thou the mote in thy neighbor's eye and regardeth not the beam in thine own?  Swish!)  It's especially problematic when I'm trying to be a professional around children and other teachers and not see them in terms of formulas and cliche's.  And it's really bad when, for example, the other day I just had to admit that the group of special needs kids I had for the day along with the gaggle (See?) of female aides and co-teachers named Teacher Debbie or Teacher Veronica were pretty gosh-darn dull and tedious and annoying.   I mean yes, they were kind of cute and I like helping them and sometimes they smile at you or grimace in frustration in a way that really is heart-rending, but for God's sake, you've got to entertain yourself once in a while.

The kids were a group of eight and they included children with fetal drug and alcohol damage, varying degrees of autism, birth defects, a chattering little fellow named Angel who, Teacher Misty informed me, was "extremely verbal and he can fool you into thinking he's a Baby Einstein, but believe me, there's absolutely nothing there,"  and a couple of Down's syndrome boys thrown in.  The boys were squat, jolly little tanks rumbling around the room, grinning and butting you with their mortar shell-shaped heads.   The women all had special training to deal with these boys, who were stunningly strong.   Occasional wrestling matches broke out when the boys tried to raid the kitchen or get into the games cabinet.  These women have been hurt occasionally, but I'm never allowed as a male to step in and if they ram me, I'm supposed to throw my arms up and try to back away.  The same goes for hugging.  The Teacher Gals get pretty much all the hugging they want from these kids and the other children on campus, who are deliriously affectionate and would hug a mile of parking meters, but I have to do the required back-off-hand-in-the-air-maybe-just-a-feather-touch-on-the-back-routine.   It's just the way things are, and at one point Teacher Misty said to me with a tight-lipped grimace of sympathy, "Everybody needs a little lovin'"  

"Don't worry about me," I wanted to tell her.  "I'm used to self-denial.  The boys down at the shelter are a pretty touchy-feely lot, but I have to keep my distance."  

In the afternoon, just when I think the tedium can't get worse--lots of drooling, punching (One little girl's shtick was to give you a big sloppy smile, crook her finger like it was I Got a Secret Time, then start windmilling her arms, creating a flurry of tiny fists in your face) hissy fits, screaming in my ear--I get to spend nearly an hour at the puzzle station with Angel, the word savant.  The other members of his station group have gone home, so it's just me and Angel in the cozy corner, where I discover  a huge stack of amazing puzzles.   They're made of wood, about 8 by 6 inches each, and consist of brilliantly colored and lacquered irregular shapes that fit into a panel.  Each puzzle shape is imprinted with eye-popping photo-real image of simple objects, toys, and devices that most children would recognize.  My first puzzle has bunnies, marbles, umbrellas, lollipops, and kites, while Angel's has swim fins, cupcakes, crayons, pumpkins, and butterflies. 

I really like these damn puzzles.   They're exactly what I've been waiting for.  Angel's constant chittering and word-rich warbling is kind of relaxing in a droning way, and I mostly tune him out as I sink deeper and deeper into the realm of these gorgeous representations of the human world--even the pumpkins and heads of lettuce and broccoli and doggies are human creations as here depicted, so glossy and basic at the same time.  It's as if I've entered some Platonic Realm of Ideal Forms.  And it's  all for ME.   

Rubber Duckies, Red Wagons, Baseball Caps, Dice, Pennies . . .

Trucks, Paint Buckets, Stars, Fish, Tacos . . .

Mine, all mine.  It's like a dream from childhood; each picture gives me a lightning flicker of pre-adolescent ecstasy.

Occasionally I tune in on Angel, who is happily shuffling through dozens of bright pictures, because he really says some startling things sometimes in response to an image of limes or piggy banks: "These fellows are little pink gentlemen who look as if they're made of bubble gum, but you'd be wrong, they are bacon machines . . ."  I wonder if he's got Williams syndrome, something I read about in Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct .

These children are hyper-verbal with amazing baroque and fantastical vocabularies but can be quite mentally deficient.  I ask Teacher Britt if Angel is a Williams Child.   "No, his name is Lopez."  

The magical afternoon goes on . . .  Bells, Bows, Leaves, Green Grass, Hills . . .Cherries, Ants, Seashells, Pinatas, Pretzels . . .

"Pretzels!  Mine!  I feel a wet, slobbery hand on the back of mine.  "Pretzels!  Mine!" shrieks Angel.  And he slickly slides the pretzel piece over to his side of the table with the other hand.

Why.  You. Little . . .Two can play that game.  I point into the air with my index finger.  "Look!"  When he looks up I stab his Toy Soldiers panel and slide it to my side.  "Mine!"

Guitars.  "Mine!"

Lemons.  "Mine!"

Moon.  "Mine!" [Little twerp got my moon!]

Back and forth we go, then it's time to haul out one of the classic moves.   

Sharks.  "Mine," I growl. 

Dolphins.  "Mine," Angel growls back and laughs.

Suddenly I point at him and shout "Yours!"

Puzzlement.  Bafflement.  He hesitates, then points at a picture of a King.  "Yours!" he screams.

"A-plus, kiddo!  I think we're making some real progress here, buddy."

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